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Wildfire exposure could be drastically lowered by reducing emissions

In a special report from Monash University, experts warn that without limiting greenhouse gas emissions, the threat of severe wildfires will continue to drastically increase worldwide. On the other hand, if immediate action is taken to limit global warming, wildfire exposure could be reduced by up to 80 percent worldwide by the end of this century.

The researchers analyzed relevant studies published over the last 20 years. They found that climate change is the primary driving force behind the three essential conditions for wildfires – fuel, oxygen, and an ignition source. For example, the combination of more frequent drought, inconsistent rainfall, and hotter temperatures results in more flammable vegetation.

The report noted that the global average carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from wildfires accounted for about 22 percent of the carbon emissions from burning fossil fuels between 1997 to 2016. 

Future projections indicate that if greenhouse gas emissions continue at the current rate, wildfire exposure could increase to over 74 percent of the global land mass by the year 2100. According to the researchers, however,  limiting global warming to 1.5 or 2 degrees Celsius would help to avoid an increase in wildfire exposure of 60 to 80 percent.

“The world has already observed many devastating effects of human-induced climate change,” wrote the study authors. “A vivid manifestation is the several large wildfires that have occurred recently – in some cases, fires of unprecedented scale and duration – including wildfires in Australia in 2019 to 2020, the Amazon rainforest in Brazil in 2019 and 2020, the western United States in 2018 and 2020, and British Columbia in 2017 and 2018.”

“Robust projections indicate that the risk of wildfires will continue to increase in most areas of the world as climate change worsens, and that the fires will increase excess mortality and morbidity from burns, wildfire smoke, and mental health effects.”

The physical consequences of wildfire exposure include eye irritation, corneal abrasions, and respiratory impacts. The psychological effects include post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, and insomnia. 

Since August of this year, wildfires have burned more than 7 million acres in the western United States. More than 30 people have been killed and tens of thousands of victims have lost their homes. 

While the wildfires are fueled by climate change, they are also contributing to it. “Substantial greenhouse-gas emissions and forest loss from wildfires are likely to accelerate climate change further and possibly lead to a reinforcing feedback loop,” wrote the researchers. 

The study is published in the New England Journal of Medicine.

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer

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